The American Point of View
The First Army's July offensive came to an end on 19 July, the day after the capture of St. Lô. Despite the fact that the operations had moved U.S. troops to the southern edge of the Cotentin swampland--along the Lessay-Périers-St. Lô-Caumont line--the results were disappointing.
Heroic exertion seemed, on the surface, to have accomplished little. With twelve divisions, the First Army in seventeen days had advanced only about seven miles in the region west of the Vire and little more than half that distance east of the river. Not only was the distance gained disappointing, the newly established Lessay-Caumont line was less than satisfactory. The VIII Corps physically occupied neither Lessay nor Périers; the VII Corps did not actually possess the Périers-St. Lô highway; and the city of St. Lô remained under enemy artillery and mortar fire for more than a week after its capture by the XIX Corps.1
To reach positions along the Lessay-Caumont line, the First Army had sustained approximately 40,000 casualties during July, of which 90 percent were infantrymen. A rifle company after a week of combat often numbered less than one hundred men; sometimes it resembled a reinforced platoon. Casualties among infantry officers in the line companies were particularly high in the hedgerow country, where small-unit initiative and individual leadership figured so largely. Of all the infantry company officers in one regiment that had entered Normandy shortly after D Day, only four lieutenants remained by the third week in July, and all four by then were commanding rifle companies.2
The majority of the casualties were caused by shell fragments, involving in many cases multiple wounds.3 Many other men suffered combat fatigue. Not always counted in the casualty reports, they nevertheless totaled an additional 25 to 33 percent of the number of men physically wounded. All the divisions made informal provision for treating combat fatigue cases, usually at the regimental collecting stations, and several divisional neuropsychiatrists established exhaustion centers. Working
with improvised facilities and without personnel specifically assigned for this purpose, the doctors returned a large percentage of fatigue cases to duty after 24 to 72 hours of rest and sedation. Patients who did not respond were evacuated to one of two First Army combat exhaustion centers--250-bed hospitals eventually expanded to 750 and 1,000 beds.4
"We won the battle of Normandy," one survivor later said, "[but] considering the high price in American lives, we lost."5 Not a bitter indictment of the way warfare was conducted in the hedgerows, the statement revealed instead the feeling of despair that touched all who participated. Frustration was the clearest impression. The "working day" was determined by daylight, usually from about 0500 to the final wisp of visibility an hour or two before midnight. Patrol action and preparations for the morrow meant that even the few hours of darkness were full of activity. A new morning meant little, for little changed in the dreary landscape of the Norman battleground.6
Over a stretch of such days, you became so dulled by fatigue that the names of the killed and wounded they checked off each night, the names of men who had been your best friends, might have come out of a telephone book for all you knew. All the old values were gone, and if there was a world beyond this tangle of hedgerows . . . , where one barrage could lay out half a company like a giant's club, you never expected to live to see it.7
It seemed incredible that only a few days and a few miles separated the water-filled foxholes from the British pubs, the desolate Cotentin from the English countryside, the sound of battle from the noise of Piccadilly. The hedgerows that surrounded the rectangular Norman fields seemed to isolate the men from all past experience and oppress them with the feeling that they were beings inhabiting another planet. Units separated by a single hedgerow were frequently unaware of each other's presence. Each small group knew only of its own efforts and had but a vague impression that other individuals were similarly engaged.8
The transition from training for war to the reality of battle was difficult and often rapid. Some units incurred casualties before they actually entered combat, as when ships on their way to France occasionally struck mines or when long-range German guns found a mark.9 Artillery gun crews frequently unloaded the ships that had brought them to the Continent and proceeded at once, even though they were already weary, to support an attack.10 The experience of four and a half newly arrived divisions underscored the problems of transition. In addition to the mistakes made by units, many individuals temporarily forgot the lessons of basic training and failed, for example, to use cover and concealment properly. After a week of action
one tank battalion was "not available for any employment whatsoever because of losses in personnel," and the division to which it was attached used instead three 105-mm. self-propelled guns and three 81-mm. mortars mounted on half-tracks. The intricate maze of sunken roads between matted hedgerows emphasized the sense of bewilderment that afflicted those new to the terrors of combat. It was easy to get lost, and some tank crews found it necessary to designate a man to act as navigator. After the initial shock, however, the sights and sounds of life and death in Normandy became familiar. Dulled by fatigue and habit, the men soon accepted their lot as normal.11
Behind . . . [the battalions] the engineers slammed bulldozers through the obstinate hedgerow banks, carving a makeshift supply route up to the forward elements, and everywhere the medics were drafting litter bearers to haul the wounded the long way back.12
Several features distinguished combat in Normandy during July 1944 from combat elsewhere. Very soon General Eisenhower had concluded that three factors were making the battle extremely tough: "First, as always, the fighting quality of the German soldier; second, the nature of the country; third, the weather."13
The fighting quality of the enemy troops encompassed a great range. Russians and Poles employed in combination with Germans formed an "alloy" that withstood little pressure despite the exceptional leadership of German commissioned and noncommissioned officers. Non-Germanic troops, who comprised the bulk of the prisoners of war taken by the First Army, seemed to be convinced that Germany could not continue the war much longer, and Americans wondered when all the Germans would come to this realization. But the German troops, as distinguished from the Osttruppen, were good. Not invincible, the regular Wehrmacht units nevertheless had "staying power," while SS forces and paratroopers were a breed apart: "Elite troops, with an unshakable morale, they asked no quarter and made certain that they gave none. . . ."14 The Germans had conducted an active defense, mounting local counterattacks with local reserves supported by small groups of tanks. Well-employed mortars and machine guns and roving artillery pieces characterized their stubborn delaying tactics. Generally, during the early part of the month, the Germans seemed reluctant to employ their artillery in volume, but as the month progressed they increasingly used battery and battalion volleys to obtain mass and concentration on fewer targets. When forced to withdraw, the Germans broke contact during darkness and covered their withdrawal with large numbers of automatic weapons in order to delay the advance by forcing the Americans to commit additional units. By the time American attacks made the covering force break contact, another covering force had set up another delaying position,
and U.S. troops seemed "unable to find the solution to this problem."15
American commanders had been alert for evidence that would indicate a penetration of the German defenses. Short-lived pursuit had occurred, for example, in the VIII Corps sector when the Germans withdrew in good order from la Haye-du-Puits to the Ay and the Sèves Rivers. But the only real opportunity to exploit a penetration came after the bridgehead was established between the Taute and the Vire Rivers, and this had been muffed. Capture of Hill 192 by V Corps forces had also pierced the German defensive line, but the projected First Army wheeling maneuver on Caumont precluded a deep thrust in the eastern sector of the First Army line. The advance all along the army front had been painful. The Germans gave way so slowly that the July offensive seemed to have failed. The nature of the country favored the Germans. The marshes of the Cotentin canalized American attacks into well-defined corridors. Soggy ground in large part immobilized the mechanized power of U.S. ground forces. The hedgerows subdivided the terrain into small rectangular compartments that the Germans had tied together to provide mutual support. The result was a continuous band of strong-points in great depth all across the front. Handicapped by lack of observation, by the difficulty of maintaining direction, and by the limited ability to use all supporting weapons to maximum advantage, the Americans adopted a form of jungle or Indian fighting in which the individ ual soldier played a dominant role. Units were assigned frontages according to specific fields and hedgerows rather than by yardage, and distances and intervals between tactical formations were reduced.16 The battleground reminded observers of the tiny battlefields of the American Civil War.
Feeling out each hedgerow for the hidden enemy was a tense affair performed at close range. "Must go forward slowly, as we are doing," a regimental commander reported; "take one hedgerow at a time and clean it up." This was standing operating procedure much of the time. At that slow rate, often a single hedgerow per day, the troops "could see the war lasting for twenty years." "Too many hedges" and not the enemy was the real deterrent to rapid advance.17
The weather helped the enemy. The amount of cloud, wind, and rain in June and July of 1944 was greater than that recorded at any time since 1900. It nullified Allied air superiority on many days. Although the IX Tactical Air Command flew over 900 air missions for the First Army between 26 June and 24 July, approximately 50 percent of the potential air support could not be employed because of adverse weather conditions.18 The rain and the sticky, repulsive
mud it produced made the ground troops wonder whether they would ever be warm and clean and dry again.
Since the depth of the continental beachhead was not much greater in July than it had been in June, the problem of congestion was still acute. Allied army and corps headquarters that had become available on the Continent could not be utilized because of lack of room for the troops they would command. With a single regiment requiring between 14 and 20 miles of road for movement, traffic flowed at a pedestrian rate, often with vehicles bumper to bumper. Macadam roads, the best in Normandy, were few; the great majority of the roads were of gravel. They were all difficult to keep in good repair under the wheels and tracks of heavy military vehicles. In wet weather they were slippery or muddy; during the infrequent periods of sunshine, they quickly became dusty.19
Despite the difficulties of ground transportation, the actual delivery of supplies to the combat forces was generally satisfactory. Short lines of communications, lower consumption rates in gasoline and oil, the absence of the Luftwaffe over the combat zone, and the large volume of supplies brought over the open beaches resulted in a relatively stable logistical situation. Artillery ammunition expenditure was heavy between 4 and 15 July, even though control was being exercised and unrestricted firing forbidden. To compensate for the lack of observation in Normandy, deeper and wider concentrations than normal were fired. Although reserve stocks of ammunition sometimes dropped to low levels on certain types of shells, particularly for the 105-mm. howitzer, the troops were seldom obliged to curtail their firing because of shortages. While artillery, tank destroyer, and antiaircraft personnel replacements were available in unnecessarily large quantities, infantry replacements, particularly riflemen, were in short supply because of the unexpectedly high casualty rates. By the middle of the month the deficiency in infantrymen became so serious that 25,000 rifle replacements were requested from the zone of interior by the fastest transportation possible. Weapons losses--Browning automatic rifles, grenade launchers, bazookas, mortars, and light machine guns--were also higher than anticipated, but replacements arrived through normal channels of resupply from stocks in England. Also, in combat that measured gains in yards rather than in miles, many more small-scale maps were needed. Air shipments of 1:25,000 maps from England remedied the deficiency.20 Since the Allies needed to expand the continental foothold in order to gain room for maneuver, airfields, and the increasing quantities of troops and supplies of the build-up, and also to acquire ports of entry, the battle of the hedgerows, in geographical terms, was hardly successful in either the American zone in the Cotentin or the British zone
around Caen. Space and port facilities remained the most serious Allied concern. Fulfilling the requirement of Operation Overlord--securing adequate lodgment in northwest France--seemed a long way off.
In the third week of July, as the First Army regrouped for a new attempt to gain the Coutances-Caumont line, there was little realization that the July offensive had achieved results of vital significance. Allied preoccupation with geography and the undiminished German resistance had combined to obscure the fact that in pressing for geographical gain the Allies had been fulfilling a precept of Clausewitz: destroying the enemy military forces. Allied pressure along a broad front had prevented the enemy from building strong mobile reserves and concentrating them in offensive action against any one point; it had also thinned the forces in contact.21 How close the Germans in Normandy had been brought to destruction was to become apparent with surprising clarity in the next few weeks of warfare.
The German Point of View
To the Germans, even more than to the Americans, the July operations had been hard. Only the skillful defensive tactics in the hedgerow terrain plus the pattern of the American offensive had averted complete disintegration of the German defenses in Normandy. The successive nature of the American corps attacks had enabled the Germans to shift units from one threatened portion of the front to another, a course of action perhaps impossible had the First Army been able to launch simultaneous attacks all across the front.
The activity of the 2d SS Panzer Division, located south of St. Lô and constituting the entire Seventh Army reserve, exemplified German flexibility. The division had on 5 July dispatched a kampfgruppe to la Haye-du-Puits and a battalion of tanks to St. Lô while the main body of troops moved toward Périers. The tank battalion near St. Lô marched onto the Carentan-Périers isthmus on 7 July. Two days later a regiment entered the battle between the Taute and the Vire. The regiment fought there until relieved by Panzer Lehr,and then, together with the kampfgruppe near la Haye-du-Puits, helped the 17th SS Panzer Grenadier Division in defense of Périers.22
The units rushed to Normandy had performed a similar function. By the time the 5th Parachute Division arrived from Brittany, on 12 July, the 15th Regiment, which had earlier been detached, was already fighting on Mont Castre. Seventh Army plans to commit the entire division in the la Haye-du-Puits sector were abandoned when the Panzer Lehr attack miscarried, and one of the new regiments was immediately committed between the Taute and the Vire.23
On the other hand, such fragmentary commitment led to the dispersal of German units. Goering, whose headquarters had administrative control of Luftwaffe ground forces, soon threatened to stop the flow of replacements to the 5th Parachute Division if the scattered elements were not immediately reassembled
and the division used as a unit.24 The 275th Division, which had arrived in the Cotentin by mid-July, could not be employed in toto because one of its regiments was already battered by the fighting near la Haye-du-Puits. Thus the strength of three divisions--each of which, if employed as a powerful unified force, might have turned the course of the battle in any one sector--had been dissipated by the more urgent need to hold back the American pressure.
Plagued by the necessity of committing their reserves piecemeal, the Germans were also concerned by the decline of aggressiveness among their troops. The mounting reluctance of armored divisions to make a wholehearted effort seemed particularly serious. The classic example of too little too late, at least in Rommel's opinion, had been the Panzer Lehr attack on 11 July. Even in the earlier fighting about Caen, there was dissatisfaction at the higher command echelons with panzer effectiveness. Spirit was a vital prerequisite for success, and signs that spirit was subsiding on the troop level were evident.25
The Germans faced shortages in both men and munitions, but the latter was the more significant. Against an estimated British expenditure of 80,000 artillery rounds around Caen on 10 July, the Germans had been able to fire a scant 4,500 shells in return. "Although our troop morale is good," a German officer protested, "we cannot meet the enemy matériel with courage alone." The Germans could not meet the Allied rate of fire because their transportation network had been systematically bombed by Allied planes and sabotaged by the French Resistance. Efforts to expedite the flow of supplies by increasing the use of the Seine River barges failed to meet the battlefield demands.26
That much needed to be replaced and resupplied was obvious from the matériel losses sustained in Normandy. Between 6 June and 9 July, the Germans had lost 150 Mark IV tanks, 85 Panthers, and 15 Tigers, 167 75-mm. assault and antitank guns, and almost 30 88-mm. pieces--more than enough to equip an entire SS armored division.27
Casualty figures were even more depressing. Between 6 June and 11 July the losses in the west totaled almost 2,000 officers and 85,000 men. The 243d Division had lost over 8,000 men in the Cotentin, the 352d Division almost 8,000 men in the Cotentin and St. Lô sectors, the 716th Division more than 6,000 near Caen. The 12th SS Panzer Division, with casualties numbering 4,485, had seen its infantry components reduced to the strength of a single battalion--one sixth of its authorized strength. The 21st Panzer Division had taken 3,411 casualties; Panzer Lehr 3,140.28 To replace these losses, only 5,210 replacements, or 6 percent of the casualties, had arrived at the front, though another 7,500 or 9 percent were promised or on the way. By 17 July German casualties in Normandy had risen to about 100,000, of which 2,360 were officers. Replacements promised
to fill the depleted ranks would total about 12 percent of the losses.29
To Choltitz, who commanded the LXXXIV Corps, it seemed that the battle of the hedgerows was "a monstrous blood-bath," the like of which he had not seen in eleven years of war.30 Yet there seemed to be no way of stopping it except to commit units arriving from quiet sectors in the west to reinforce the sagging Normandy defense. The suggestion by Eberbach, who commanded Panzer Group West, that it was time to close most military specialist schools and send the students to the battlefield at once bespoke an impending bankruptcy of manpower resources.31
To Kluge, the OB WEST commander, the Normandy front was on the verge of developing into an ungeheures Kladderadatsch--an awful mess--and he wondered whether OKW appreciated "the tremendous consumption of forces on big battle days." In view of the heavy losses, he told Jodl, Hitler's order for inflexible defense necessitated an expenditure of troops the Germans could no longer afford. Because Kluge believed that the infantry would not hold much longer, he wanted tanks, more tanks, "to act as corset stays behind the troops." He also wanted Hitler to know that the Normandy situation was "very serious." "If a hole breaks open, I have to patch it," he said. "Tell this to Hitler."32
Whether Jodl told Hitler or not, Allied leaders were conceiving an operation that would soon make strikingly evident exactly how serious the situation in Normandy actually was.
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